More panic on robotics and jobs

Another day, another scared story on robots – this time from the Guardian, which makes the point that there is a lot happening in terms of robots and replacement of people’s jobs and not a lot of knowledge about what the end result is going to be.

You can read the story for yourself on the link. There are, however, a few factors we’d like to point out (and we’ll keep doing so until they sink in).

First, let’s not be glib. The columnist makes some excellent points and has figures to back himself up. Retailers are being replaced by ecommerce and Amazon, which has seen its workforce go from 20,000 to 500,000 in the last decade, could start cutting back and replacing with automated distribution anytime.

Therein, though, lies the partial solution. Nothing is certain but the last ten years’ experience suggests that employment is going to be subject to radical change. If one company can grow to that extent in that short a space of time, so can another to take up the slack and provide the services on which the new robotic workforce will depend.

This is why research we’ve quoted often from Loughborough University has suggested that in the contact centre industry at least, automation creates rather than destroys jobs.

There are some pretty big caveats. First, it’s got to be done right. Second, the new jobs will almost certainly not be the same shape as the old jobs so there will be some people who feel bruised. This was always going to happen.

Which is why we concur with the closing calls from the Guardian piece. The government needs to get behind a reskilling culture so that as few people as possible feel like casualties in this so-called fourth industrial revolution. Yes, the futurists will tell you that the boring jobs will be eliminated but there are people out there with livelihoods and families dependent on those jobs, no matter whether we or you would enjoy them especially.

This is where the real difficulty arises; neither the government nor the opposition in the UK, where this article was published, or indeed in the US where the president seems convinced that offshoring is a bigger battle than automation, appear to be inspiring anyone to retrain and reskill.

We’ll do our bit by campaigning in our pages. But if you’re an employer and your staff need re-skilling, we’d ask you to start the process now – or face anger when the world changes, you knew it was likely and did nothing.

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